Before we dive into the differences between Italian and Sicilian, it may help to know a bit about Italian history. Prior to 1861, the Italy we know did not exist. Rather, the regions of modern-day Italy existed as independent states with varying degrees of autonomy.
Each state spoke a different language, and there were many dialects of each language within each state. There was no standard Italian language because there was no standard Italian identity.
After 1861, when the regions unified under one Italian nation, standard Italian was adopted as the country’s official language. Standard Italian is based on Tuscan/Roman Italian, because that is where the region’s most influential writers came from. Like Shakespeare and the English language, prominent writers such as Boccaccio and Alighieri had a powerful impact on what would become the official language of the Italian state.
Today, many regional languages are still being used in Italy. Unlike standard Italian, many of these languages are only spoken—they lack a written alphabet. Because they haven’t been standardized, the way these languages are spoken tends to vary from town to town.
If you’re interested in visiting Sicily, then you may be wondering how big the differences are between Italian and Sicilian. Technically, standard Italian and Sicilian are both dialects of the Italian language. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether Italian and Sicilian should be considered two distinct languages or merely two dialects.
Can Italians Understand Sicilian?
Here’s an entertaining video that answers this question:
Since Sicilian has its own grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation rules, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for Italian speakers to understand. Most Italians cannot understand spoken Sicilian.
If you only speak Italian, then you probably won’t be able to use or understand Sicilian without some practice.
The Sicilian language should not be confused with the Sicilian-Italian accent, however. Since all schools in Italy teach standard Italian, nearly all Sicilians can speak and converse in Italian, they just have strong accents.
The Sicilian language is typically reserved for use at home or among friends. While the Sicilian accent can be very difficult to understand, it is not the same as the Sicilian language.
It’s also worth noting that no one in Italy speaks pure, standard Italian. Most people speak a very stylized version of the Italian language that is heavily influenced by the region they come from.
So just as there is a Sicilian-Italian accent, there is also a Sardinian-Italian accent, a Neapolitan-Italian accent, and so on.
Differences between Italian and Sicilian
In the following sections, I’ll look at the differences between Italian and Sicilian from three important perspectives—grammatical differences, vocabulary differences, and pronunciation differences.
While Italian and Sicilian are both Romance languages, there are considerable differences in the grammar of the two languages. For starters, Italian and Sicilian use different pronouns. The following chart summarizes the pronouns in Italian, and how they differ in Sicilian.
|You (plural)||Voi||Vui, vuiàtri|
Another major difference is that verbs conjugate differently in Sicilian. While some of the verb stems look like their Italian counterparts, Sicilian verbs take on totally different endings. Here is an example of how the word parràri, to speak, conjugates in the present tense.
|You speak (plural)||Parlate||Parràti|
While Siclian grammar has obvious Romance roots, Sicilian vocabulary is heavily influenced by Greek and Arabic languages. Due to its unique geography, Sicily has historically been a melting pot where countless cultures and languages have clashed and melded together.
At times Sicily has come under the rule of the Byzantine empire, Saracens from North Africa, and others. The result of Sicily’s unusual geography is that many words in Sicilian are very different from Italian.
Not only is Sicilian vocabulary different on a topical level, but much of the language’s vocabulary isn’t Latin or Indo-European at all. This fact makes it particularly challenging for Italians who are trying to understand spoken Sicilian.
Here are some my favorite examples of unique words in Sicilian:
As you can see, Sicilian vocabulary is unique from Italian. While these are just a few examples, many words in Sicilian bear no resemblance to their equivalents in Italian.
When it comes to pronunciation differences, Sicilian is a very different language from Italian. While it would be overkill to go over all of the differences here, there are a few features of Sicilian pronunciation that you may find interesting.
First, there are many sounds in Sicilian that do not exist in Italian. In fact, many of the consonant sounds in Sicilian do not exist in any other Romance languages. One group of consonants, retroflex consonants, make Sicilian highly unusual.
Additionally, Sicilian treats unstressed vowels differently than Italian does. In Italian, vowels are typically pronounced the same regardless of stress. Whether in the word figo or ochi, the letter “o” will always make the same sound in Italian.
In Sicilian, however, vowels are pronounced differently depending on their stress. This is known as vowel reduction. For example, while a stressed “a” may still make an “ah” sound in Sicilian, an unstressed “a” may be pronounced as “uh.”
While we’ve only covered a couple of pronunciation differences, you can see why Sicilian and Italian speakers can hardly understand each other.
Here is a great video to give you an idea of what spoken Sicilian sounds like:
In conclusion, there are many differences between Italian and Sicilian. So many, in fact, that most Italians would consider Sicilian a totally different language.
Luckily, most Sicilians can also speak Italian. While they may speak with a thick accent, through practice you can learn to communicate and get around Sicily using Italian. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you could always learn Sicilian instead!